The Ford Kuga has always been the best 4x4 to drive in its class – but it fell down in one area. It just wasn't big enough. Barely any more spacious inside than a regular five-door Focus hatchback, it lacked rear seat passenger room and carrying capacity.
The new car seeks to right those wrongs – and bring some extra gadgetry with it, while packing the same fun driving experience to make a VW Tiguan and Honda CR-V feel dull by comparison. It doesn't go on sale until January next year, but we've driven a US-market version to see what you can expect.
Unlike the previous model, the new Kuga has been designed under the One Ford global car policy, and will be sold throughout the world almost unchanged. That's why, if you look closely, you'll see the car in our pictures is badged Escape, which is the name it'll carry in North America.
Apart from some minor changes to the grille and foglights, the Escape and the Kuga are the same car. With an updated shape teamed with Ford’s new family face, which carries over the narrow grille and split lower intakes of the Vertrek concept car that previewed it, the new SUV looks smart.
It also hides its added dimensions very well indeed. To suit the US market and appeal more to Europeans, the car has grown a bit, with the same wheelbase but an extra 81mm added to the overall length.
As a result, it's much bigger inside, with a maximum load area of 1,928 litres – that’s a whopping 573-litres more than before – and there's now generous space in the rear for a pair of tall adults. Thanks to a fantastic panoramic sunroof, there's lots of light in the back, too.
Like its underpinnings, the Kuga borrows most of its dashboard from the latest Focus and C-MAX, but it looks classier than either, with a huge eight-inch central display. The Kuga also packs lots of new gadgets, including Ford's SYNC system, which allows you to pair your smartphone and play music through the speakers via Bluetooth.
It also allows you to make phone calls in this way too. You can control SYNC via voice command or buttons on the steering wheel, so you keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
The most enterprising feature, though, is the automatic tailgate, which makes opening the boot with your hands full very easy indeed. All you do is sweep your foot under the rear bumper. A beep lets you know the system is engaged and that you have two seconds to stand back before the gate lifts. A push of the bootlid button reverses the process. Other features include optional blindspot warning and self-parking.
The Kuga also features a Curve Control set-up to help tighten its line in a corner, plus torque vectoring to send power to the wheels with the most grip. Together with four-wheel drive, the Kuga feels very stable and secure, but it's also agile enough to have fun, turning into corners well and offering decent feedback through the electric power steering.
The engine range hasn't been finalised for the UK just yet, but is expected to consist of three diesels, with 114bhp, 138bhp or 161bhp and two 1.6-litre EcoBoost turbocharged petrols with either 148bhp or 178bhp. Manual gearboxes will be available, but we tested Ford's dual-clutch Powershift six-speed automatic gearbox with the 178bhp petrol.
There aren't any official figures available yet, but we'd estimate a 0-62mph time of around 8.5 seconds, and with 250Nm of torque, it had enough urge for snappy overtaking, while sensible gearing meant it settled to a quiet cruise on the motorway. We reckon you should be able to see 35mpg on a regular basis.
The really frugal Kugas will be the diesels though. Available in just front-wheel drive, there should be an Econetic version that will return nearly 60mpg thanks to stop-start, an active grille shutter and energy-recuperation systems.
New Kuga prices are likely to start at around £22,000 – a few hundred pounds more than the current Kuga – but top spec versions will almost certainly cost a lot more than current cars to reflect the extra equipment available. That means you could easily spend well over £30,000 on a flagship Titanium diesel, which is edging towards Audi Q5 territory. Whatever version you go for you'll be getting a car that's a great improvement over its predecessor.